For 25-year-old Israeli Anton Soloviov, the dream of working in Canada turned into a nightmare of human trafficking with threats of deportation, random fines for so-called infractions and ultimately death threats.
Brought into the country as a temporary foreign worker seven months ago, he and others in the same situation worked without pay for their expatriate-Israeli employers, who used the threat of deportation to keep their employees in line.
Last fall, while still in Israel, Soloviov saw an online advertisement for work abroad that promised earnings of up to $5,000 a month. Though his best friend warned him it looked too good to be true, it was an opportunity Soloviov couldn’t pass up. He applied online, interviewed with Canadian business owner Dor Mordechai over the phone and flew to Vancouver in October 2013.
Mordechai and his wife, Anna Lepski, hired him as a foreign worker for their company, 0860005 B.C. Ltd., which operates kiosks in British Columbia malls, both on the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. Soloviov, 25, met two fellow workers, also Israelis, on the ferry to the island and worked with them at Nanaimo’s Woodgrove Centre, at kiosks selling the Pinook Massage device and cosmetics, among other products. Mordechai and Lepski arranged housing for him and his fellow workers in a sparsely furnished house in Nanaimo, charging them $450 per month each in rent.
At first things seemed OK. “The first few weeks were wonderful. They showed us around and took us to Service Canada to get our SIN numbers,” he recalls.
Left with $300 after paying for his $1,900 airfare to Vancouver – a fee that is supposed to be paid by the employer of a temporary foreign worker – Soloviov managed to pay for food for the first month. But payday offered the first indication that the work was far from kosher.
“Instead of paying us for a month’s work, our supervisor… [who is] also an Israeli, announced that we were working on commission, so after rent deductions and paying him $500 for our work permits, we didn’t actually earn anything,” he recalls. When Soloviov objected, the supervisor informed him that if he didn’t want to work, his work permit could be cancelled right away and he would be deported by Immigration Canada.
By December 2013 Soloviov had worked hundreds of hours and had made a total of $300 after the fines that he and his fellow workers were forced to pay.
“I was fined for everything you can imagine,” he says. “[The supervisor] would come up to the kiosk, see something missing and fine everyone who worked that day $100. If we were seen on our phones, we’d be fined. If we were caught talking to each other, we were fined $100.”
Over the course of those months Soloviov did some research, contacted a lawyer and came to understand that the way he was being treated was entirely illegal.
So he approached the supervisor and Mordechai and asked to be paid what he was owed, “or else I’d file a complaint with Employment Standards. That’s when they threatened to hunt me down and kill me and my family in Israel unless I kept my mouth shut.”
Soloviov was less worried about himself than his family. “I’m ex-military. I can take care of myself. But the threat to my family was a blow. I was afraid for my mother, who lives with my baby sister. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
In late December, he went to the Nanaimo RCMP with his story, and then to the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter, since he had no money or accommodation. What’s more, he was unemployable, since his temporary foreign worker permit allowed him to work only for Mordechai’s company.
Today, thanks to the intervention of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, which helped Soloviov find an immigration lawyer, he now has an open work permit and has found employment at a fast food outlet in Nanaimo.
His only friend in the country, who works at Woodgrove Mall, has offered him a place to stay for the time being. But Soloviov’s future still feels uncertain.
“I want to stay on in Canada, but I’m not going back to that mall because I know they’re still there,” he says, referring to his ex-employers. “My friend still gets approached by people asking where I am, and I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder all the time.”
Immigration officials say Soloviov fits in the category of a “victim of trafficking in persons.” He has filed a complaint against Mordechai and Lepski with Employment Standards, and his lawyer estimates that once the legal case is resolved he can expect to be awarded damages.
Some of Mordechai and Lepski’s mall kiosks are still operating today, and Soloviov said none of the more than 50 mall kiosk sales staff working for the company is Canadian.
Mordechai and Lepski are now being formally investigated, according to the office of Employment Minister Jason Kenney. Since the case involves allegations of human trafficking, it’s being handled by the Ministry of Public Safety.
Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Rémi Larivière said the government of Canada takes the issue of exploitation and mistreatment of temporary foreign workers very seriously and that improvements to the program took effect on Dec. 31 2013. These include allowing Citizenship and Immigration and Employment and Social Development Canada officials to conduct inspections of employers who hire these workers to ensure that they’re meeting the conditions of employment.
Service Canada has also made some changes, launching a public tip line two weeks ago to encourage Canadians who have any complaints, to share them with the agency’s Integrity Services.
Lepski refused to answer questions when contacted by The CJN, and there was no answer at a number that Woodgrove Centre gave for Mordechai.